The purported benefits of genetically modified crops include higher yields, resistance to pesticides and pests and delayed spoilage times - a combination of factors that would surely meet the needs of the hungry. This presupposes that shortage of food is the problem. It is not. More than enough food is already produced.
People starve because they are too poor to buy food, because they are denied access to land to grow it, or because they are displaced by civil unrest and war. Genetically modified crops are irrelevant where the structural issues of hunger are inequitable access to and distribution of food. Indeed, there is no evidence that current genetic engineering of crops is directed at solving Third World hunger. The two main crops being grown commercially in the US are soy beans and maize. The bulk of both crops is used as animal feed - providing meat for the well fed while, worldwide, two out of three people have a primarily vegetarian diet. Claims of altruism may be misplaced, but this doesn't mean that food producers and distributors of GMO (genetically modified organisms) are disinterested in the developing world.
Far from it. There are huge financial interests at stake, not least in supplying Western consumer markets. This linkage has profound implications for developing countries, their farmers and environment. Without any significant direct benefit to the host population, the growing of GM crops in developing countries will present social and economic burdens in addition to the environmental threat.
Genetically modified seeds with "technology protection systems" - the terminator genes - are a prime example. Designed to produce but not reproduce, these seeds are a direct challenge to traditional agriculture where the farmers harvest and store their seed for replanting. Not only would farmers lose the freedom of independent crop breeding and seed exchange; they would have to purchase expensive seeds from the biotech companies. Such controls would further marginalise poorer farmers, leading to increased homogenisation of crops and consolidation of land.
Superficially the herbicide-resistant crop looks a better prospect for the developing world. Paradoxically it reinforces farmers' dependence on chemicals and undermines efforts to use more sustainable forms of agriculture. The same risks - of uncontrollable releases of GMOs, of creating super weeds or "natural" crop failures - are faced by developing countries.
These issues will be on the international agenda in Colombia this week, when 170 nations negotiate the final stages of the international Biosafety Protocol intended to regulate movement between countries of GMOs and their products. Public opinion is forcing European governments to act on GMOs at home, but even more critical is the stance we take internationally.
An effective protocol must give states the right to apply the precautionary principal when deciding whether or not to allow the import, introduction, transfer, handling or use of GMOs or their products within their territory. Similarly all states should be able to take full account of socio-economic impact within their territory when taking decisions on GMOs and their products.
These rights might seem obvious but they are directly opposed by the biotech industries and without them countries attempting to ban GMOs fall foul of free trade laws.
Also at issue in Colombia is the question of liability. No international legal framework exists to deal with these new technologies, and developing countries in particular are calling for a fair liability and compensation system.
Fears about the effect of GMOs on human health are reaching fever pitch The re-evaluation of Arpad Pusztai's work on feeding GM potatoes to rats, will give even greater impetus to the campaign to freeze commercial production of GM crops for both human and animal consumption. It would be appalling if we who have the best science, regulatory regimes and resources were to take steps to protect ourselves but fail to hear the concerns of developing countries.
The writer is a botanist and Labour MP for Lewisham, Deptford.
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